Background: While adults who drink low to moderate amounts of alcohol have lower rates of cardiovascular disease than other adults, the effect of alcohol on the brain is less clear. There is evidence that drinking large amounts of alcohol is related to brain atrophy. It is uncertain what the effects of low to moderate consumption might be.
Objective: To determine whether consumption of smaller amounts of alcohol negatively affects brain volume or is protective in reducing the well-documented age-related decline in brain volume.
Design: Total cerebral brain volume (TCBV) was computed, correcting for head size. Multivariate linear regression models were used to evaluate the association between 5 categories of alcohol consumption (abstainers, former drinkers, low, moderate, high) and TCBV, adjusting for age, sex, education, height, body mass index (calculated as weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared), and the Framingham Stroke Risk Profile. Pairwise comparisons were also conducted between the alcohol consumption groups.
Participants: A total of 1839 subjects from the Framingham Offspring Study who had magnetic resonance imaging of the brain between 1999 and 2001.
Results: Most participants reported low alcohol consumption, and men were more likely than women to be moderate or heavy drinkers. There was a significant negative linear relationship between alcohol consumption and TCBV (r = -0.25; P < .001). This relationship was modified by sex, with alcohol consumption having a stronger association with TCBV in women than in men (r = -0.29 vs -0.20).
Conclusions: In contrast to studies on cardiovascular disease, this study found that moderate alcohol consumption was not protective against normal age-related differences in total brain volume. Rather, the more alcohol consumed, the smaller the total brain volume.